My father could tell a story.
He loved hearing one, too, which is true of all great storytellers. Their magic lies as much in the listening as in the telling.
My father had a Seussian delight in the absurdities of life. But unlike the fictional Marco who walking home from school saw only a plain horse and wagon on Mulberry Street and tried to embellish that with fanciful details, Al Dobie could mine the seemingly banal for a riveting nugget of actual drama.
Many of his best stories came from his work running the dining halls at Yale University. For us as children, work seemed like some exotic foreign land where battles were waged and castles captured. My father was a dragon-slayer, but one with self-deprecation, another quality of all great storytellers.
He knew how to milk a moment, how to inject humor and create suspense, and how to capture the essence of the people in his tales. They were endlessly entertaining, but there was much to take away from them, too. We learned there were many problems we would confront, but there was a solution for every one of them if we let our imaginations loose to meet the challenge. His stories taught us to think outside the box before we even knew the phrase.
Storytelling is a gift. Not one that’s innate, but one you nurture. You tell stories, and you learn to tell them better. And we must tell stories, not the ones untethered from truth but the ones rooted in the lives we live. Stories are how we communicate as humans, how we make sense of our experiences, how we process the humor and pathos, the awe and anger. It’s how we bring people in to share what we have in common, and how we instruct on what’s different and new. It’s how we pass on traditions, and how we keep memories alive.
At bedtime, my father would tell us Peter stories. The protagonist was a boy sent to the store to buy things, all of which started with P, all of which we had to remember. He walked down a street lined with flowers — peonies, pansies, petunias and (who knew?) portulacas. And he had adventures along the way. We listened, rapt. Years later, I told my daughters stories about the adventures of three little pigs. They listened raptly, too. And I told tales about work — to them and to my father.
We lost him last month, at 86. He slipped away slowly, and while his ability to tell a good story slipped away with him, until very close to the end he continued to enjoy the stories of others. His eyes were closed, but that smile would cross his lips at a good line and you knew he was there.
Now his stories rattle around in my brain. I reach for them, and find fragments. The moral in one. A sharply drawn character in another. The central plot in a particular tale of action. The twinkle in his eye just before the denouement.
One recent afternoon, my grandson came home from school. I heard the dull thud of the car door outside, the front door opening, the rustling downstairs as he and my wife came inside. Then the footsteps of him scampering upstairs to the bedroom that now serves as my work area.
He came into the room, his eyes bright and eager, crackling with energy, and I asked him how school had been.
"Well," he said, drawing out the word for maximum effect, "have I got a story for you."
I think we’re going to be OK.
Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.